Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
I had the opportunity today, along with a small group of fellow grad students, to meet NPR reporter Anne Garrels. Garrels has become famous over the last couple of years for being one of the 16 American journalists to remain in Baghdad during the war. Her sometimes harrowing reports from the Palestine Hotel seared her voice into the memories of many Americans. She’s been back to Baghdad since that initial period, and she’ll be going back again soon. She exudes an interesting mix of enthusiasm and fatalism about reporting in such a precarious situation — there was much mention of kidnappings and beheadings. She is quite pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, and she seemed genuinely astonished by the way she has seen the Americans handle the reconstruction. The logistics of reporting in that part of the world were perhaps the most fascinating part of the conversation. There is seemingly endless second- guessing about at what point it becomes too dangerous for reporters to be there, and in the meantime much of the time and budget seems to be taken up by solving security issues. There was, in the room, an almost palpable sense of concern for Garrels’ well-being. Certainly she is more than capable of handling the situation, but even so, after meeting her in person, we began to worry about her impending return to Iraq. After her time was up in the classroom we all sort of followed her out of the building — she had kept up the conversation even though it was time for her to go — and outside where she smoked a cigarette and we huddled around her, telling her about ourselves. When she was done, she wished us all good luck, and we all wished her good luck back, and we meant it.Side notes: Garrels mentioned that Anthony Shadid, the Washington Post reporter who won the Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage, is working on a book. She said that his deep understanding of the situation over there should make the book very good. She also mentioned the Committee to Protect Journalists, of which she is a director. The website keeps track of journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, underscoring what is at stake for journalists who put themselves in dangerous situations. Finally, I should mention her book, which, after meeting Garrels, I would really like to read. Have a look: Naked in Baghdad
Last night I went to a reading given by Douglas Coupland during which he read passages from his new novel, Eleanor Rigby, and also previewed a lengthy passage from a work-in-progress. Flying on codeine (Coupland, not me), he shot off on various random tangents that, in the end, were twice as entertaining as the readings themselves.Instructed in piano at a young age, Coupland recently decided to give himself a refresher so that he could impress and astound his family with a note-perfect rendition of that Charlie Brown Christmas Piano Thing (which probably has a simpler title than that). Unfortunately the task proved to be more physically traumatic than expected and his left hand went into painful spasms. Hence the codeine, which incidentally Coupland now swears by and highly recommends for recreational use.I should mention up front that I’m not actually an ardent Coupland reader. In fact, I’ve only read one of his novels (Miss Wyoming). I recall enjoying it thoroughly, but I must also confess that I don’t remember a thing about it. Other than the pleasurable experience of reading it. Otherwise, sorry – complete mental block. However I will say that he’s a tremendously engaging speaker – quick-witted, completely engaged with his audience, and with a dry, understated, almost deadpan delivery.Eleanor Rigby is indeed the story of one of the lonely people – Liz Dunn. Coupland spoke of the manner in which he describes his characters and his settings. How, in some works, he deliberately avoids over-describing things, leaving the reader to project his own image of a certain protagonist, or of a certain room. Other times, as Liz Dunn herself states, there should be no confusion as to the detail. So, here, the facts are laid out: her age, her overweight awkwardness. These details are necessary in setting the character. They affect her frame of mind. They affect her loneliness.As for Coupland’s work-in-progress, it will be a sequel to Microserfs entitled jPod. Allusions to the ubiquitous iPod aside, jPod is actually the name of a corner of an office housing 6 employees whose last names begin with a J. Coupland says that this novel will essentially be about “corporate intrusion into private memory.” Heady stuff. But the passage he read came off a bit light-weight and a bit forced. It was a scene in which the 6 employees discuss McDonald’s, and in particular Ronald McDonald, and in particular Ronald McDonald’s sex-life. They decide that they should each compose and read to the group a “love letter” to Ronald. Then we hear the letters, and they were amusing to a point, and I suppose they do reveal a bit about the individual characters, and the passage seemed to go off well with the audience. But the whole thing came off a bit jokey. And once the whole unusual premise was set, even a bit obvious.His random tangents, however, were truly memorable, as much for their delivery as for their content. How, for instance he suffers from what he calls “executive dysfunction” rendering him inexplicably yet completely incapable of performing such simple tasks as opening an envelope. Until, that is, a doctor-friend suggested doing these impossible tasks at half-speed. Which apparently works. And also how he and his 78-year old father, with whom he has nothing in common, have recently and surprisingly bonded over their mutual affinity for a reality show called The Swan.Whether or not I pick up the new or the next Douglas Coupland book remains a bit of a question mark. What is certain is that if he does another reading in town, codeine or no codeine, I’ll be there. And I’ll be the one listening intently for the random tangents.
Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
The best part of BEA by a longshot was meeting all the people I’ve been corresponding with for so long and whose blogs I’ve been reading for what seems like forever. The LBC party on Friday night was a blast. Many bloggers were there (Most of these folks have pictures and writeups from BEA up so go check them out as they most likely went to many more parties than I did): Ed, Mark of TEV, Sarah of Confessions, Pinky of her Paperhaus, Kassia of Booksquare, Bud of Chekhov’s Mistress, Wendi of the Happy Booker, Matt of The Mumpsimus, Megan of Bookdwarf, Gwenda of Shaken & Stirred, Scott of SlushPile, Lauren of Lux Lotus, Lizzie of The Old Hag, Written Nerd, Madam Mayo, and, unfortunately, Bat Segundo. (If I forgot anyone or if I mistakenly think I met you but I didn’t – hey, it was dark and I’d had a few drinks – let me know.)Some things I learned about my fellow bloggers: Ed is an intrepid gadfly, but Mr. Segundo is a menace; Megan is not as short as I had been led to believe; Gwenda and Kelly Link are the twin queens of a merry band of sci-fi fanatics; while I can say with some certainty that I will never podcast, all the coolest kids are doing it.I also met cool folks at Melville House, Coffee House, McSweeney’s, and lots of other publishers. I met Jason Bitner who put together the very cool book LaPorte, Indiana (which I wrote about a while back). I also picked up copies of The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah along with lots of catalogs, all of which I left at my parents’ house in Maryland because I didn’t want to lug them back on the plane. But all in all it was great to see everybody.
NB: I wrote the following post a few hours ago, and I’ve been letting it simmer a bit. I’ve since visited the blogs of several other folks who were at BEA, and it made me want to point out that despite what I’ve written below, BEA was a very fun event and that it was possible to get a lot more out of it than I did – for proof check out Mark, Written Nerd, and Pinky to name a few.As previously noted, it wasn’t really possible to do the sort of quick hit blogging that I wanted to do at BEA, but I’ve had the chance to cobble together my scattered thoughts on my overall impressions of the event in a post that will hopefully be better than a bunch of smaller ones would have been.First, I don’t think I’ll ever go again. The event obviously serves a purpose as the yearly trade show for the publishing industry, and BEA embraces the promotional atmosphere that is integral to such shows. Along with the hundreds (thousands?) of booths there are also dozens of panels and talks that address many aspects of the industry and allow for people to stay up to date on various topics. Some of the topics have a literary feel – there was an emerging voices panel, a panel on the short story, and the now infamous Sam Tanenhaus best books of the last 25 years panel – but many more were about salesmanship and other commerce-related topics (as there probably should be.) There was also the well-done, but poorly titled talk that Sarah of GalleyCat gave. It was called Syndicating LitBlog Book Reviews (Sarah didn’t come up with the title), in which Sarah gave a nice little overview of the LitBlog culture. The unfortunate part was that there were only about 25 people there, half bloggers and half people trying to get bloggers to notice the books they were trying to promote. The question and answer period evolved into an off the cuff conversation where, essentially, we told these people how they could get at us. It hearkened back in a way to the pre-BEA topic that came up on several litblogs, the awkward relationship between litblogs and publicists (scroll down to the bottom of that post for links to what other bloggers were saying.) By the end of BEA I came to realize that the relationship between litblogs and the publishing industry as whole is ill-defined.At the heart of it, both sides want something. The publishers see blogs as a venue of growing importance, and, while perhaps overstating our influence, many are starting to see mentions on litblogs as a crucial aspect of bringing a successful book to market. Meanwhile, and forgive me for painting with a very broad brush, litbloggers want some grouping of the following things: we want free books; we want (often in a fanboyish way) access to authors and important publishing industry personalities; we want to be noticed and widely read, we want to feel that our devotion to book culture is filling the void left by the shrinking book review sections in newspapers and magazines; and finally – I’ll admit it – some of us want to make a little coin (if litblogging isn’t a dream job, I don’t know what is).At mainstream publications, the rules of engagement are well-defined. Journalists are forbidden to accept freebies beyond just review copies. Popular reviews and interviews bring prestige to the publication for which the reviewers write as much as they do to the reviewers themselves. But we bloggers don’t have ethics committees, and when we write something that becomes popular, all prestige (and a flood of readers) flow to the name on the blog. Publishers seem to know this, and the sense I got at BEA is that they see us as easy targets, venues for publicity that can be bought by playing to the vanity that anyone who blogs seriously must necessarily have. In the end, I’m not calling for a code of ethics for litbloggers or anything like that, it’s just that being there in the center of the publishing industry’s profit-driven heart, where books are flogged loudly and in a mind-bending number of silly and obnoxious ways, I realized that I should put a little more thought into my relationship with the publishing industry.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city’s population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a “parade” led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though — either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn’t get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor’s ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren’t into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children’s books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer’s high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks — I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I’m just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It’s near a MARTA station, the city’s bus/rail transit system. There’s a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There’s restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie’s Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens’ own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake’s Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I’ll go again next year.